Towards a Systemic Approach to Business in India

by | May 14, 2021

Ram’s career has spanned over 40 years, during which he has donned multiple avatars: Corporate leader (CEO), Business builder, Government advisor, Angel investor, runaway monk internship. He is presently a systemic leadership coach. 

In this paper, he argues that Indian leaders are schizophrenic. On one hand, torn between the inherited cultural values of harmony and family obligations, and on the other hand a product of imbibed Western B-School concepts of professional management and profit above all else. 

This dichotomy leads to hypocrisy and duplicity in Indian business. This is evidenced by treating people as means to an end rather than resources, much  talked about, but not practised.  Unlike their more forthright Western counterparts, who make no bones about profit making, Indian business leaders pretend to be of service to society and the system; yet acting only for personal gains of wealth and power through manipulation and lack of transparency. 

Ram shares his experiences on Indianness and the Indian Business Leaders. He explores where the hypocrisy may possibly emanate from, how this behaviour is at odds with changing generational needs, and what are the likely fallouts even while pointing to emerging trends of systemic approach moving from diversity to unity, built on people engagement and collaborative teamwork in leadership. Indian companies and leaders, he argues,  have what it takes to be far better and greater than they are now. 

Indianness: Fact or Fantasy?

What is India and Indianness? The term ‘India’ is a word borrowed from those who colonised us. From the multiplicity in a country with over a dozen religions, over 25 recognized languages, and possibly several thousand tongues and ethnic groups, how do we become one?. From about 600 princely states and territories, probably far more before the British attempted integration, we became 20 states and union territories in 1947 upon independence, and are now at 37. The integration didn’t last long, moving to fragmentation through ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences. Yet, some believe that one religion and one language will unite us.

What is the common factor that holds us together as a nation and people despite this vastness of space, population and diversity? What may continue to hold us together despite our differences? Without a basic understanding of this it is futile to talk of Indianness.

Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti, says the Rig Veda. Truth is one integral unity, yet expressed in diverse ways by the learned. The Veda explains that the formless eternal divinity is one viewed through multiple forms. Emphasizing this, Isavasya Upanishad from a later day Yajur Veda said one who sees others within Self and Self in others is centred and evolved in Collective Consciousness. We seem confused in our disintegration and intolerance, forgetting the holistic and systemic truths of our ancestors in their seminal concept of Collective Consciousness, and we are all one family.

This land of our wise ancestors was Sindhu, the land of the rivers. It earned other names over time, including Bharat, the land of Bharata, part of our mythological lore. From Sindhu, the name of this land was corrupted by the foreign invaders to Hindu, and then India by later day British colonisers. This label of domination we choose to wear proudly, calling this our heritage, this irony of our enslavement as a nation and its people seemingly escaping our Collective Consciousness. This irony and accepted ignorance expands into unconscious defensive hypocrisy.

In line with the oneness of humanity, our ancients created a universal code of righteous conduct called dharmathat would define our actions, karma. Dharma was initially defined in alignment with the inherent nature of people, their guna. This was the teaching of the Sruti, our scriptures, considered to be eternal truths.

Kautilya in The Arthashastra[i], quotes the Veda:

“Dharma is law in its widest sense—spiritual, moral, ethical and temporal. Every individual, whether the ruler or the ruled, is governed by his or her own dharma. To the extent that society respected dharma, society protected itself; to the extent society offended it, society undermined”

Our ancients believed in their infinite divine potential of Brahman. They never believed they were born sinners. The collective prarabdha karma that one entered the world with in this birth, was neither good nor bad; just a purpose we needed to fulfil. This purpose was often fulfilled through selfless action arising from our Collective Consciousness. From this noble philosophy of the eternal truth, known as Sanatana Dharma, we have descended into a controlling religion that promotes the apartheid of caste, genders, wealth and education. Patriarchy and untouchability have replaced worship of the female energy and seeing one Self in others, leading to the intolerance we experience today. We moved from collective consciousness to collective unconsciousness. Smriti (that which is rembered, temporal laws)  replaced Sruti (that which is heard, the eternal truth) .

Is this Indianness? Is this how we wish to be as Indians? How do we regain our heritage?

Indian Business: What is their Dharma?

Indian business ethos seems to have evolved from the guidelines provided for the class of people categorised as Vaisya, businessmen. The concept of varna, based on one’s character and aptitude, was articulated in the Purusha Sutra of Rig Veda[ii], and reiterated in the Bhagavad Gita by Krishna who said:

‘the four categories of occupations were created by me according to people’s qualities and activities’. Later on he goes on to add,the duties of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas, and of Sudras, are defined by their qualities born of nature.  Agriculture, tending cattle and trade is the natural duty of Vaisyas.’

Unfortunately, over time, the classification as guilds based on skills and aptitude degenerated into a birth right for those who thought they were higher in class hierarchy, thanks to human greed and fear. This was reinforced in Manusmriti, and to some extent in Arthasastra. Varna, based on aptitude and nature, degenerated into jati based on birth and nurture. This today is the bane of our nation, an apartheid, one that we ought to be ashamed of.

Kautilya in Arthasastra shares this wisdom on governance:

  • Don’t be too honest. Straight trees are cut first. Honest people suffer,
  • Ask 3 questions before you start action: 
    • Why?
    • What outcome do I expect?
    • How will I know I shall be successful?
  • Once you act, keep going, don’t give up being afraid of failing. Working hard makes you happy.
  • Don’t worry about the past, or be fearful of the future. Focus on the present.

These are the heritage of Indian business people. Even today, the majority of those who are successful in business are born in the Vaisya community. A large part of this success clearly arises from nurturing, though, who knows, science may isolate the business gene one day!

The belief system in risk taking is a key element of the nurturing in business people. This powerful belief and therefore confidence to succeed despite all odds helps a business person create a value proposition that shapes their mindset, behaviour and self-fulfilling actions. As a coach, I am able to perceive this difference between someone who has been nurtured in a business community and one who is not, in terms of risk taking ability and their willingness to bend the rules as means to a business end. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all, so long as we do not suffer from guilt of what we learn in B-Schools.

Perhaps there is research that correlates business success with the caste, though I couldn’t find any that addressed this area, the closest being an article referred here in endnotes[iii]. I personally believe that the ethos of successful Indian business is derived from principles of the varna behaviour based on what are perceived as the scriptural truths of:

  • My dharma is to make money. Nothing else matters. Greed is God.
  • Honesty and integrity are for the dumb; Trust is for the cowardly.
  • Wealth is happiness, an end in itself. Any means to achieve wealth is fair.
  • Collaboration is good when there is a communal bond.
  • Wealth requires control; control is built through fear and greed. 

I may seem harsh. Unfortunately, my experience substantiates this behaviour, barring a few truly amazing exceptions. The dichotomy, as I experienced it, is the blurred distinction between the nurtured ‘professional’ managers and the ‘nature born’ entrepreneurial businesspersons. Professional managers nurtured through B-Schools wallow in the deluded self-belief that because they can manage enterprises owned by others well, they too can create, build and lead them.

Yes, they can, but only if they adapt to the harsher laws of business. I mention later some of these leaders who have transitioned from the professional management state to entrepreneurial business builders. One sees more of them in the technology sector, where what matters, is innate business acumen combined with vision and commitment and to succeed without the need for family wealth and connections. As any experienced venture capitalist would tell you, the probability of such people succeeding is one in ten.

My Professional Experience

I started  my career as a management trainee in a large family group immediately upon graduating as an engineer. I moved through multiple avatars spanning a career over 50 years. I spent 18 years with an MNC and 4  as CEO in a family group, both stints gaining me a reputation as a turnaround specialist.  Following this, over the next ten years,  I helped create a multi-billion dollar global conglomerate in Indonesia . The collapse of the South East Asian economy in 1997 led me to Singapore as an advisor to the Singapore government, alongside serial entrepreneurship, angel investing and family business consulting occupations. In parallel, I was on a spiritual journey aspiring to be a monk, which ended in disappointment and frustration, me being led on by a false guru. The lessons I learnt were that power & wealth are impermanent, and that the guru lies within me, not outside.

At Turning 60 and at crossroads, a serendipitous encounter with an ex-colleague, led me to the path of a leadership coach and to leadership coach training. I feel fulfilled.  Our company Coacharya is reasonably known in this space, most certainly in India, and increasingly globally.

My four decades of diverse experience with Indian corporate world has been bittersweet. Ironically, I generally find the corporate space more authentic and less hypocritical than the non-profit, academic and spiritual spaces. The latter talk about serving others, while focusing on selfish greed, as Sankara hauntingly says in Bhaja Govindam about such hypocrites.

Plucking the hair bald or growing it matted
Wearing multicoured clothes to mislead
They look but not see, the fools
They wear these masks to fill their bellies

My hero’s journey led to the realisation of the uncertainty and impermanence of wealth and power. It helped me move beyond the Purushartha (meaning of life), including artha (wealth) and kama (desire including power),  to seek the ultimate disengagement of moksha, aligned to  my dharma and downloaded prarabdhakarma. The business of Coacharya is to make money, but in a way, that it serves everyone, not just my family and I alone. This to me is the true spirit of conscious capitalism. We are building a community for change makers, not a company for profit. Through the lens of this philosophy of collective consciousness, I would like to elaborate on my experiences with Indian businesses and business persons.

I believe that Indian business and its leaders can lead the world, as many do so, both in India  and abroad already. My gripe with the corporate world, both in India and abroad is just this. Given the sad state of political leadership everywhere in the world, the worst form of ‘absencing’ leadership one can experience, one can only fall back on the corporate world to make this world liveable in a ‘presencing’ mode of collective systemic consciousness as Otto Scharmer says in Theory U[iv]. The corporate world has the immense potentiality but it is yet to actualize.

Whatever I say from now needs to be read in this context of how Indian corporate leaders can actually wield their power with dharma towards the moksha of our unserved, unloved, unprivileged masses. They can, if they move with an open mind, open heart and open will. Let me address this under a few themes.

The Reality and Myth of People Engagement

Many leadership studies across the world point to two major challenges of leadership succession and people engagement. Billions of $$ are spent in training, coaching and consulting in these areas, and yet, much needs to be done in actualising this knowledge and embedding them in corporate culture, which as we shall see later needs  a systemic approach.  It’s not about knowledge and skills, but about shifts in beliefs, values, and attitudes that transform behaviour.  This transformation needs to be top down.

The Good & The Great

I cite a few experiences in my life in the Indian context. I would like to list the good and the great first, for two reasons. The first, that’s what I truly experienced most of the time; the second, it is much better to talk about where we wish to be and go based on empowering experiences, rather that talk of the not so good ones, which can be overcome. I am an eternal optimist and believe Indian companies can be good and great.

The family group I joined 50 plus years ago, as a wet behind the ears trainee, had an amazing leadership development program that was superior to whatever I later witnessed in other Indian companies including multi-national corporations(MNCs). The process stress tested me and burnished my steel, as it were. However, the company was totally autocratic and dictatorial. Its practices may not have been unethical from an Artha Sastra ethos, but it certainly was not transparent. I longed to leave. At the first opportunity at the end of two years I did. Many others like me left as well. Despite this, I learned a tremendous lot in this stint. Had I not been through this crucible of an experience, I may not have progressed to where I did.

My life with the MNC I joined (a happenstance of timing and compatibility), lasted almost two decades. I left partly because I was impatient for the corner office and wealth, also because I expected the company and its leaders to be like Caesar’s wife: whiter than white. This was impossible under the moronic laws that were in place then in India. Being quite polarised and binary in my views, often seen as arrogant and heretical, I was considered a maverick and rebel. Yet, this was my alma mater, and it suffered me patiently. Even today, I feel it’s my family, arousing a visceral feeling of authentic connection when I meet people who either work there or did, though I may not have known them in my journey there. I have no regrets that I left 18 years later, though my wife does. She misses the familial connection we had with one another and the truly authentic caring she experienced with spouses of very senior leaders who made her comfortable despite our age and position.

What was so different about it? Its leaders, at least in my tenure, were authoritative. They expected others to ask ‘how high, sir’ when told to jump. There were some who were obnoxious bullies.  However, the difference was that everyone truly cared. They were not class conscious the way I had experienced before and after. They took responsibility for those who worked with them. They were available to their people at all times. I haven’t experienced this culture anywhere else, nor was I able to create it in the companies I led to the same extent.

It would have been easy for these leaders to have easily disengaged from me,  even fired me for my attitude of defiance. They rarely fired anyone in Levers. It was always an attitude of listening and helping to transform. I remember an incident when once I overstepped my boundaries and disrespected a very senior colleague, a wise man, gentle, and much older. The incident went to the Chairman, who I had worked directly under. The Vice-Chairman came down to meet me. All he said was this, “Ram, knowing you, I sense there is something more to what I hear in terms of treating an older colleague disrespectfully. What happened?

Not a word of admonishment. He spent over two hours with me. In the end, he made me aware of how I was viewing things in black and white, while life, he asserted,  is always in shades of grey. The conversation touched me deeply, with the empathy and respect with which this man, very senior to me, who could have easily treated me for what I was, a young, arrogant pup who needed to be disciplined. He was not trained as a coach, but he was one of the best coaches I know.  He listened  empathetically and explored in order to make me aware.

Much later, I learnt from a dear friend, who was my boss, as well as lifelong mentor and guide, that the Chairman had first asked him (my friend) to intervene, ‘ I want you to talk to Ram. If I do, and he says something nasty , I cannot tolerate, I will end up firing him.’ This friend said, ‘ I know Ram, he won’t misbehave if you approach him. However, if you’re uncomfortable, why don’t you ask your senior colleague to talk to him first.

Three very senior leaders, in a situation where I had clearly behaved without the needed respect and empathy with a senior colleague, took the trouble to consult each other before approaching me. This incident certainly developed me as a leader. I am not sure if I changed totally. Yet, I did improve in how I treated my peers and who I disagreed with. I always had a great rapport with those who worked with me, many of whom are still in regular contact with me. However, I surely had a problem with peer collaboration.

Respect, Empathy and Collaboration are what we need in Indian companies, desperately. Many who read this, even if they do not know of me and my career, may easily recognise this institution as what used to be known as Hindustan Lever.  I salute this institution. Once I left Levers, I met a very different world of companies and leaders & founders, and now often as a leadership coach.

I had an excellent experience with the family group I joined next. The founder Chairman I reported to was a good human being, a great leader, wise and refined. He allowed me total freedom and I loved  my work. He made me understand Arthashastra in order to deal with the government and sometimes with customers, to see the greys better. Simply put, some officials in the government had to be fed, but you don’t have to do it. On my first day, he said to me, ‘I know you carry the legacy of levers, which is why I hired you. I don’t have the legal army of levers. If anyone makes a demand on you, let me know, and I shall handle it. I shall never ask you to do anything you don’t believe is right.’ He never did.

The Bad & The Ugly

From time to time, I was called by ex-Lever colleagues to join companies they had moved to or had connections with. In one instance, I was prevailed upon by a legendary Lever Chairman, through a colleague, to meet with a philanthropist visionary founder owner of one the largest Indian corporations. They were involved in a multinational JV and were looking for a CEO. I went to meet this man as a favour to an ex-boss and spent over  two hours in his hotel room in Delhi, where he grilled me without even offering me the decency of a glass of water. I left with a bad taste. I received a letter from this man’s office a couple of weeks later saying that the position I had ‘applied for’ had been filled.

The story had a bitter ending. When I quit the family group the Chairman was very upset I was leaving, and said, ‘I knew that you had been looking for another job for a long time. I should have never trusted you.’ The decision to leave was impulsive because of personal differences. He said that the billionaire founder who talked to me for a job told him privately that I had been stalking him for a job. This was insane. I was a nobody, and this guy, a very  wealthy and powerful leader, lied for no reason to defame me and damage my relationship with someone I respected.

In a later instance, when I was in Singapore on my own, I was headhunted by a famous global agency for a super CEO position in a well-known Indian group. This time, I was flown to Mumbai to meet the Chairman at his penthouse apartment. He was very hospitable. In the middle of our otherwise great conversation, the phone rang.  He excused himself and talked for ten minutes, knowing that I could hear all he said. The call was about a senior leader of his who had approached another founder chairman who he was talking to. After he put down the phone, he said, ‘you know, Ram, these people who try to switch jobs do not realize that we are not fools. We have our owner network. We tell each other about who approaches us from another.’ I declined the job for this and other reasons.

Such a toxic attitude is quite common in ‘Indian’ companies, as I have heard of similar experiences from others too. I don’t understand why people who own and run these corporations are so insecure. The reason many senior leaders leave them is because they are toxic. Unfortunately other ‘Indian’ companies they move to are no better. As a rule, people of this ilk, whether part of the owning family or leaders  in ‘professionally’ managed companies, do not like to change, and are bent on changing others to their damaged ways. They hire the most expensive consultants for people engagement and performance optimization. These never help, since tactics may change, but mindsets don’t. Unless the leaders’ mind shifts, nothing else will.

Some Other Great Companies

A company I have tremendous respect for is the Tata group. I never worked there. I have trained and coached Tata leaders who could easily walk away for twice the salaries they get there, but don’t. It’s culture is positively addictive. It’s a group that has amazing potential, however is yet to actualize, except in TCS. Unlike Levers, it’s a fragmented group of companies led by satraps, only recently being consolidated to some extent, yet glued together with meta-values of ethics and dharma, strangely not Hindu, but imported from ancient Persia. I truly love the Tata culture. A boss of  mine from Levers moved to Tata, in a senior leadership role. He did a great job in both. A prolific author and raconteur (you will read his article in this journal as well), I am sure he will write a wonderful book comparing these two amazingly and truly great companies, as a great leader himself. In my experience, Levers and Tata are about all that is good, and great, in Indian company leadership.

There are a few other companies and leaders in India, not many, but as in Jim Collins’ Good to Great, a highly select few, who have created a culture of excellence. Though not very familiar, from all that I know from respected friends, point to Anand Mahindra as such a leader. While Mahindra came with a business heritage, there are others without a business background like Narayana Murthy and his co-founders, who built Infosys, the company that spawned thousands of technology entrepreneurs in India. Another person I do know reasonably well is Ashok Soota, a wonderfully gentle visionary and serial mega entrepreneur, who is now inspiring many more thousands. Ashok is not merely a very successful entrepreneur; he defines the transcendental Level 5 leader, whose philanthropic work is rarely known. I am sure there are more. What makes these leaders who they are? How have they built cultures that are so  far different from the milieu? Why are they so respected and loved? Where have they learnt their people skills?

Moving to Greatness

At the core, we return to a few characteristics I spoke about earlier as well. To begin with it is Respect for People and building sustainable performance based on people, not the other way around. Most others speak glibly and hypocritically about people being valuable resources, with no conviction to practise.

The second, is placing Teams above Individuals. People as individuals are important, but they cannot do anything without collaborating with teams. Many companies talk about teamwork, yet, they reward only individual accomplishment – ‘walk falsifying talk’. I have coached leaders in companies, who reward business leaders who sabotage other business verticals of the same company. The leaders become aware of the futility of this mindset, and cannot do anything because the organization supports this in the name of competitive performance, one that destroys the fabric of the company.

I spoke of the top down mind shift we need in beliefs, values and attitudes, to create a shift in behaviour and outcome. This requires a holistic systemic approach to help align individuals through teams they work in with the ethos, culture and goals of the organization. This requires development of both teams and individuals who work in them, through far more intensive coaching led systemic team building, working to specific end results, rather than mere training and individual coaching. The cost of such work will be recovered in multiples, if the organisation sets appropriate quantitative goals. Coacharya has evidence of this.

Unfortunately, CEOs rarely want to be coached, since they seem to know everything. They only want others to change, not themselves. Those at the CXO level they force coaching upon, want to be coached only individually as be treated as stars. More and more, when I am asked to coach multiple leaders in a company at CXO level or below, I only accept if they agree to be coached as a team. Often the leaders decline. My simple question, which often has me losing the possibility of assignments, is, ‘if you believe you cannot be coached together as a team, how can you as a leadership team expect to work together for the company’s growth?’ They have no answer. They don’t like my question and I.

Most leaders are happy to be lone stars and heroes, as they get rewarded far better. They need a team to support, yet they cannot or won’t give credit to others. While Google had invested hundreds of millions in project Aristotle and Oxygen about teamwork, most Indian leaders I meet haven’t heard about how to develop teams. Very few understand and are interested in collaborative systemic team approach, unfortunately not even HR leaders.

A rare exception is TCS, which has engaged in the systemic team approach, with coaching, for many years now. I was involved in this in the beginning and many Coacharya coaches continue to be engaged. They have exemplary evidence of its success in developing leaders as coaches. It helps them in cultural shift. Why am I surprised? It’s a Tata company. Most other companies and leaders yawn. They would rather brag about a foreign consultant they engage. When you ask for evidence of ROI there is silence.

If an Indian company wants to be good and great, the first step is to take a systemic approach to leadership development. What happens today is a broken system. It can’t be fixed with the band aid and jugaad approach we are so notorious for.

Final Thoughts on Leadership

Great leaders are at the core of great companies. They are role models in displaying charismatic assertive authority with genuine respect, empathy, and care like some of the leaders I worked for and with. They are disengaged from personal aggrandisement. They are unbiased, non-judgmental and always fair, comfortable with not always being right.

Great leaders influence and inspire others to model them and collaborate, putting others and teams above selfish interest. Companies need to create the structure for this to happen, and also a psychological safe space of engagement as an inclusive family.  It’s tough to build but not impossible. One question I often ask teams I work with is, “do you know the names of the spouses and children of people you work with?”. In Levers, everyone did.

Great leaders take risks. They anticipate change and lead VUCA, not because they know but because they are vulnerable enough to declare they don’t know, and explore with stakeholders within and outside the company without ego. This results in a flexible and process resilient to cope with rapid and unanticipated changes, in a far better manner than complex scenario planning and game theories can.

Great leaders integrate. A group like Tata may have many companies. If they wish to maximise performance from their potential, they have to create a new band of leaders who are willing to collaborate rather than assert their sovereignty. Leaders who place themselves above the organization and teams cannot survive in the brave new world.

I used to be an idealist bemoaning every flexibility in an organization as a cop-out in integrity moving into corruption. I now realize that in a disorganized entropic corrupt world impractical idealism does not work. I cannot be corrupted, hopefully, and yet I have learnt to be flexible and work with external corruption up to a point pragmatically, while ensuring that it does not extend internally. Again, it’s difficult not impossible. Life, as the great Lever mentor coach said, is not black and white, merely a spectrum of grey.

Vedic ethos is about unity in multiplicity, tolerance of opposing faiths, vulnerability in serving others ahead of us and collective consciousness. Indians, people of the Vedic heritage of Sindhu, have the innate capability to integrate the self of individual accomplishment with the Self of enhancing the livelihood of all around them. Our beliefs of the collective consciousness, the inherent divine potentiality of the individual, and the noble truth of seeing everyone else as an equal to share what we have with, raises us far above to the practised truth of Collective Consciousness from the limiting Western beliefs of the collective unconscious, privacy above all else, and the individual wants above needs of the underserved. Seeing beyond oneself and immediacy in a large systemic sense of Individual, Stakeholders and System in a futuristic way is the solution to lead change.

Let us embrace our heritage of Self above self. We shall lead in happiness and fulfillment, if not in wealth.

About the Author

Ram Ramanathan, MCC, MP, BCC — Leadership Coach Is co-founder and mentor coach at Coacharya. Ram held C-suite leadership positions for 25-years during which he turned around companies, helped build a billion dollar conglomerate, supervised multinational joint ventures, advised the governments of Indonesia and Singapore, angel invested/incubated technology start-ups, and consulted family businesses, small-to-medium enterprises and non-profit institutions. Ram has authored several books on Eastern philosophy and published articles internationally on mindless awareness in coaching. He teaches as an adjunct faculty at post graduate programs and speaks at events related to human development. Ram and his wife, Neena, split their time between their home in Bangalore with their rescue dog, and their grandchildren and their dogs in California and Texas.

References:

[i] The Arthashashtra, Kautilya, Penguin, UK, 14th October, 2000

[ii] https://iskconeducationalservices.org/HoH/practice/dharma/the-four-varnas/

[iii] When it comes to mergers, IIM-B study finds corporate India gives weight to caste, Express Web Desk, The Indian Express, April 25, 2019

[iv] [iv] https://medium.com/presencing-institute-blog/theory-u-presencing-crossing-the-threshold-into-the-field-of-the-future-26acf37c44e8

Ram Ramanathan
Ram Ramanathan

Ram

Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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